Mar 04 2005

Ice Burks! – Schnews

This article served as a follow-up to  the ‘Power Driven’ article published in the Guardian in November 2003.

Schnews, 4th March 2005, Issue 487

Super-cool Iceland, the eco-tourist’s wet dream, right? Maybe not for much longer if the Icelandic government has its way.

You see, they’ve got a cunning plan to turn the whole country into a heavy industry paradise for all sorts of multinational scum, damming and flooding and generally trashing nature to power up a bunch of giant aluminium smelters and other slight blots on the landscape.

This is not an early April fool – it’s already started. The construction of the giant Karahnjukar dam in the Icelandic Highlands – one of Europe’s last surviving wildernesses – is well under way. Landsvirkjun (the national power company, a government quango) has a raft of further projects that would see 25% of the entire country dam affected by 2020: some vision.

Karahnjukar and most of Landsvirkjun’s future schemes harness glacial rivers fed by Vatnajokull – the biggest non-arctic glacier in the world. This glacier is the heart of a fantastically intricate eco-system: barren red and black Martian landscapes; geo-thermal springs and pools hot enough to take a bath in; rivers banked by deep, springy emerald green moss woven with tiny red and yellow flowers where no-one’s ever walked; the glacier’s own fantastic ice caves; seal breeding grounds on the black sand deltas to the north. All this will be destabilized and damaged forever if these dam projects are allowed to happen.

An international protest camp this summer aims to halt this war on nature. It’s going to be one hell of a struggle since the Icelandic government seems determined to push these projects through, no matter what opposition it faces.

What’s going on at Karahnjukar demonstrates the way that government operates. When plans for the mega-project were first submitted to the National Planning Agency (NPA) in 2001 they were rejected because of the “substantial, irreversible, negative environmental impact” the dam would have. All the experts agreed with this verdict (see IRN’s report linked below). But the environment minister overturned the NPA’s ruling and declared that in her opinion the project was environmentally acceptable – of course she is suitably qualified to decide on environmental issues – she’s a physiotherapist! There were a few financial hiccups with banks getting all ethical but Barclays bravely stepped forward with the necessary dosh – even though they’d signed up to the Equator Principles which demand “sound environmental management practices as a financing prerequisite.”

Work started in July 2003, with Italian bully-boys Impregilo (construction arm of Fiat, currently charged with corruption in Lesotho and ‘financial irregularities’ at home) and a terrifying squadron of Caterpillar bulldozers began to claw up and dynamite the fragile sub-arctic tundra. Reindeer, arctic foxes, other small animals and thousands of bird species that lived there fled in fear.


All electricity produced at Karahnjukar is contracted to a massive Alcoa aluminium smelter (being built by Bechtel, due to be operational in 2007) which itself will pollute and ruin Reydarfjordur, a pristine eastern fjord. A Reykjavik court recently ruled that Alcoa’s planning permission for this monstrosity isn’t valid, but that probably won’t stop them as they immediately appealed to the – allegedly – rigged High Court.

Karahnjukar won’t benefit Icelanders at all: none of the electricity is destined for the national grid and cos there’s little unemployment in the region no Icelander’s gonna want a nice healthy job at the smelter thanks.

Yet the cost to the nation is enormous: independent experts say the economy is at risk (see IRN report), it has cost $1 billion so far and is likely to cost more – the electricity for Alcoa is for a price linked to the changing prices of Aluminium on London Metal Market…in other words no guarantee it’ll ever make a profit.

The environment suffers more by the day. They’ve already blown part of Dimmugljufur – Iceland’s Grand Canyon – to smithereens, and if they fill up the reservoir (scheduled 2007), 65.5 square kilometres of pristine wilderness will be completely submerged. This land includes birthing grounds for the majority of Iceland’s reindeer and Ramsar ‘protected’ nesting sites for endangered species such as pink-footed geese, and Gyrfalcon. Sixty waterfalls will be lost as will a range of sediment ledges – judged completely unique in the world by scientists studying global warming – which record 10,000 years of geological and climate change. And this vast projected reservoir would extend right onto the glacier itself, which is breaking up because of global warming. Wouldn’t giant icebergs trucking up to the dam be a bit – er – dangerous? Yep. And it gets worse – the dam is being built over a seismic fault!


Earthquake zone at Kárahnjúkar volcanoes
White lines = Ground rock cracks
Yellow lines = Erosion of sediments. Erosion is parallel
to cracks: Sediments are cracked, cracking is still active
In 2003, Landsvirkjun’s chief, Fridrik Sophusson, was asked what would happen if there was an earthquake under the dam. “It would burst,” he smiled calmly. “A catastrophic wall of water would annihilate everyone in Egilsstadir [the nearest town] and all the neighbouring farms would be swept away.” Icelandic Tsunami anyone? “It won’t happen,” he added smugly. Yet in August 2004 there were continuous earthquakes at Karahnjukar for several days.

Environmentalists also warned that silt residues left by changing water levels round the projected reservoir would dry to a fine dust which the wind would carry onto local farmland. This was dismissed, yet last summer silt left in the wake of unexpected surges in the newly diverted glacial river produced just such devastating dust storms.

But none of this makes any difference: while everyone else in the ‘developed world’ is busy dismantling dams, Iceland’s rulers just can’t get enough. There are plans to dam every major glacial river in the country. Rio Tinto Zinc are reportedly salivating over the chance to devastate the North of the country, while Alcan and Century (who’ve already got smelters near Reykjavik) are keen to expand their deathly shadow in the south.

Ironically, the government- via its tourist board – still invites visitors to enjoy the “unspoilt pure natural beauty” it’s hell-bent on destroying! So how do they get away with it? Well, Iceland has a tiny population (290,000) and power is concentrated in the hands of a few very wealthy families who control politics, industry and the media. Scientists, journalists, anyone who asks questions is swiftly discredited and then sacked.

But it’s not all bad news and you can even help. A really vigorous and up-for-it grass-roots environmental movement is emerging, determined to stop Icelandic nature being pimped to the highest bidder. It’s a David v. Goliath battle and the call is out for international support.

If you are up for peacefully showing your solidarity with some of the most fantastic nature on our planet, check out and joining the protest camp summer 2005.

Also in pdf.

3 Responses to “Ice Burks! – Schnews”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think protest against Karahnjukar is a total waste of time and effort. The project is well on the way, has been contracted, financed and confirmed in the parlament. On top of that there is not really public support for stopping this.

    However there are many other sites in the Icleandic nature that need to be protected. Some of those sites have been mentioned as possible development sites, for example Jokulaarglufur Thjorsarver. The approach from environmentalists has until now been to start protesting when initial plans for development have already been made for a specific area. In other words, money has already been invested but the final decision is remaining and the developers have financial interest in fighting for the decision.

    There has been a great change in appreciation for the nature over the recent years. Some of this is financial, that is driven by the believe that the nature can provide more profit through tourism. Some of this appreciation is simply realizing that nature is something that needs to be protected, just because it is there and even if few people go there. This increased appreciatin for nature has made development in many sites that was considered by most to be acceptabel to become unacceptable.

    On the othe side of the issue is the need to develop. Most people agree that we need development. Not all people of course but a majority that drives political decision.

    What is need is to take a broader and more future looking view of preserving Icelandic nature. It needs to agreed on what sites must be protected and just as importantly, agreed on where development can take place and within what parameters.

    Time and effort would be much better spent on this than camping out at Karahnjukar to watch the completion of that project.

  2. Krummi says:

    The claim that it is too late to fight the dams at Kárahnjúkar is a travesty.

    This claim often comes with the implication that the Kárahnjúkar dams have not been opposed until now. What a blatant lie! They have been fought against from the very beginning and shall be fought to the bitter or sweet end, depending on whether we lose or win.

    I wonder if it has occured to you, Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous, that the protesters at Kárahnjúkar have strategic reasons for fighting so vigorously the dams at Kárahnjúkar? Perhaps it has something to do with the other projects you mention that are in the pipeline. Try to think along those lines and see what you come up with.

    Judging from the news reportage over the summer these protestors did a whole lot more than just sit and watch the project being completed! Which it is not, anyway. It has a long way to go and has now run into seemingly endless difficulties. These difficulties, together with the ongoing protests may very well put an end to this momentous stupidity of the Icelandic government, before it is too late. But this would be unlikely to happen if the oppostion to the project gives up in the middle of the battle.

    It really is a tragedy how alien strategic thinking seems to be to many of us Icelanders and how arrogant we yet are in our apathy and ignorance.

    But it is great to see that this is not the case with all of us.

  3. Ragnheiður says:

    Dear Anonymous.

    It appears that you want to give the impression that you are an environmentally conscious person.

    It bothers me how it seems to annoy you considerably that people are still fighting the greatest environmental crime in the history of Iceland. I thought that would be a cause to celebrate for any honest environmentalist, while there still is a chanche to stop 90% of the irreversible environmental destruction the dams will bring if they are completed.

    If you really are genuine in your concern for our environment how comes that you resort to tell a big lie? Your lie is that there is “not really public support for stopping” the dams at Kárahnjúkar.

    The most recent Gallup poll shows that almost half the Icelandic nation thinks that the Kárahnjúkar dams are a huge mistake. Another Gallup poll, also in 2005, shows that almost 90% of the nation favour build up of knowledge based industries and do not want to see more heavy industry in their country.

    That is one of many reasons why protests against the dams at Kárahnjúkar are NOT a waste of time.